The samba school Beija-Flor presented last Monday a beautiful and colorful parade during Rio de Janeiro’s annual carnival competition. The 80-minute spectacle, was chosen as this year’s winner after receiving a nearly perfect score in every category from the judges.
But underneath the peacock feathers and gyrating dancers, a dark shadow surrounded the show following allegations that a large chunk of the parade was funded by one of Africa’s most oppressive dictators.
According to Brazilian media reports, Equatorial Guinea’s leader Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo provided Beija-Flor with $10 million Brazilian reals (roughly $3.5 million US dollars) to sponsor this year’s parade theme. The African leader is a big fan of Rio’s carnival and has been attending the pre-lenten festivities for more than 10 years, “O Globo” reported.
Obiang, 72, has been in power for more than 35 years after leading a bloody coup against his uncle and former dictator Francisco Macias, whom he had executed by firing squad. He’s considered to be one of the world’s wealthiest and most corrupt leaders, accused of squandering Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth and keeping the majority of its 700,000 citizens living in poverty.
Although it is common for samba schools to accept money from companies or countries sponsoring parade themes, no school has ever received such a large sum.
Political scientists, academics and fellow artists were shocked by the judges decision Wednesday to award Beija-Flor this year's top honor. In an op-ed in "O Globo," Brazilian anthropologist Alba Zaluar highlighted aspects of the parade that were historically inaccurate.
"The school paraded an Africa full of stereotypes before our eyes, starting with the images of the Neanderthal man who never stepped foot in the African continent," Zaluar wrote.
Others, like Beija-Flor president Farid Abraao told the G1 website politics should not taint the value of their perfect performance.
“We chose a theme that would talk about an African country, a country most people knew nothing about. Our concern is carnival, not the political regime,” Beija-Flor president Farid Abraao told the G1 news website.
Despite choosing Equatorial Guinea as their official theme, the samba school also talked about (or sang about) another African country some 2,000 km away. In order to keep up with the rhyme and the beat, the musicians "abbreviated" Equatorial Guinea as "Guinea:"
"NEGRO CANTA, NEGRO CLAMA LIBERDADE
SINFONIA DAS MARÉS SAUDADE
UM AFRICANO REI QUE NÃO PERDEU A FÉ
ERA MEU IRMÃO, FILHO DA GUINÉ"
According to Federal Police, Obiang arrived to Brazil on February 12th and attended the Sambadrome parades on Sunday and Monday surrounded by tight security. His son Teodorin, 45, also came and was seen dancing with guests and sipping Dom Perignon champagne in two VIP boxes priced at R$ 120,000 (roughly $40,000 US).
The delegation even received a bow from the sultry Beija-flor drumline queen Raissa de Oliveira, who was rumored to be dating Teodorin last year when the theme was chosen.
Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue has been under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department since 2011 for corruption, embezzlement and for using illegally obtained funds to purchase millions worth of merchandise and property. A settlement was reached last October when Teodorin agreed to sell back roughly $30 million worth of assets, less than half of what the American government had sought after.
This is the 13th time Beija-Flor has won Rio de Janeiro’s carnival competition, the two-day event where twelve schools stage open-air Broadway-style productions before thousands of spectators. In the past, parades the parades have been accused of laundering drug money and being funded by the “jogo do bixo,” an illegal gambling scheme.
In addition to earning a giant trophy and the accolades of being a winner, Beija-Flor will also receive additional funding from the city government for next year’s parade.
A version of this blog post was published by Americas Quarterly on February 20, 2015.